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James Harden: ‘We are for real as it can get’

Rockets appear to be a legitimate threat to Warriors in the West

HOUSTON — As NBA All-Star James Harden walked through the Houston Rockets’ locker room door triumphantly, always-positive longtime locker room attendant Chuck Jackson gave him a fist pound and said, “I knew we could do this tonight.” To the left of Jackson was a long hallway mural with pictures celebrating the Rockets’ two NBA championships in 1994 and ’95. And after beating the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors 116-108 on Saturday night, Harden, Jackson and the confident Rockets believe they have the talent to add more celebratory pictures to the hallway this season.

“We’re for real, for real. We are for real as it can get,” Harden told The Undefeated. “I have never been this confident playing in my entire career, not only by adding Chris [Paul] but the rest of our team. We have a team with depth that at any moment can impact the game. We just got to stay locked in the rest of the season.”

It’s been the Warriors’ world in the Western Conference for the past three seasons, with three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals that garnered two titles. Unless Kawhi Leonard gets much healthier, it’s hard to see the San Antonio Spurs keeping the Warriors from a fourth straight trip to the Finals. Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t appear to have the complete roster to truly contend with the deep and talented Warriors. NBA All-Stars Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins make the New Orleans Pelicans a dark horse, but they need more talented horses in that stable to become a true threat.

The Rockets’ win Saturday didn’t change the narrative that the Warriors are still the favorites to return to the Finals. But with Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela boosting the fight of the Rockets, they appear to be the only true challenger to the Warriors for the West title.

“They’re very tough,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “I really like this team. I really like their coach. They have a good home crowd, and I think the difference between them this year and last year is obviously everyone is going to say C.P. [Paul]. But they’re just playing harder.”

So why are the Rockets a legitimate threat to the Warriors? The main reason is that Harden, Paul and Capela are a perfect trio.

The Rockets are 17-0 when Harden, Paul and Capela have played this season and 15-12 when one is missing. Two of those wins as a healthy trio have come against Golden State. Harden missed seven games to a Grade 2 hamstring strain, and Paul missed 17 with knee and adductor problems. The trio combined for 73 points on Jan. 20.

“My body feels good. It feels real good,” said Harden, who had 22 points and eight assists in 34 minutes in his second game back from injury.

Harden and Paul not only are feared scorers, they both play point guard and make every teammate better offensively. Harden is a 3-point threat and Barry Sanders-like with the basketball in the lane en route to his pretty layups. Paul’s passing this season would make Magic Johnson and John Stockton proud. Capela, a budding 2018 NBA Most Improved Player candidate, gets easy dunks and layups and lots of free throw attempts as a beneficiary of playing with Harden and Paul.

“We’re just so confident. Confident that we can work well together,” Harden said of the trio.

Said Capela: “They make the game so much easier. Whenever I get the ball, I feel good. I feel more confidence with both of them.”

The Rockets are the NBA’s most intimidating 3-point shooting team, as they shoot the most and have talented perimeter threats. They also live and die by it.

The roster includes 2017 3-point shooting champion Eric Gordon, who plans to defend his title in the 2018 contest. Stretch forward Ryan Anderson is always a threat behind the arc. Harden and Paul are outstanding 3-point shooters. And Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Gerald Green are deep threats as well. The analytically driven Rockets love the 3-pointer more than any franchise in league history has.

“We just hoop,” Paul said. “I didn’t know Eric had six points till just now. We just hoop. That’s a fun way to play. You don’t care [about individual statistics]. James had 10 last game and we won. I’ve had plenty of single[-digit] scoring games. We’re just hooping.”

No NBA roster has the depth and talent of the Warriors, who were without key reserve Andre Iguodala in their final game of a five-game road trip. The Rockets, however, have a respectable supporting cast with Gordon, Ariza, Anderson, Mbah a Moute, veteran center Nene and forward P.J. Tucker. Keep an eye on wheeling-and-dealing Rockets general manager Daryl Morey to see if he makes a move before the Feb. 8 deadline or picks up a waived veteran to further boost his roster.

“We’re deep. We can score with the best of them,” Gordon said. “And all we have to do is just have an attitude that whoever we play we have to have the desire to win like we had [Saturday]. And we will have a chance to win. We really do have a legit chance.”

Said Durant: “It’s more than just C.P. They’re doing a great job meshing together.”

Perhaps the most important key for the Rockets is their defensive effort and mentality change under defensive-minded associate head coach Jeff Bzdelik, who has better defenders to work with in his second season.

Paul, a newcomer, has long been considered one of the NBA’s best defenders. Capela, Nene and newcomer reserve center Tarik Black are shot-blocking threats. Ariza is a valuable and lengthy veteran defender. Tucker, a newcomer, is one of the toughest, grittiest and most versatile defenders in the league. The Rockets had 14 steals against the careless Warriors and averaged 11.2 over the past four games.

“They’re playing harder on the defensive side of the ball,” Durant said. “I feel like they have versatile defenders. Capela has gotten better.”

The Rockets (32-12) are 3.5 games behind the NBA-leading Warriors (37-10) in the standings. The Rockets believe they have a shot at leapfrogging the Warriors for the top seed in the West that brings home-court advantage in the conference playoffs. Houston owns the tiebreaker over Golden State after winning the season series 2-1. Gordon said Rockets players regularly talk about the importance of landing the West’s top playoff seed.

“It was a big statement because we definitely wanted to win the tiebreaker,” Gordon said. “We know we are only a couple games behind them, and we’re going to start making a big run here. We can try to see if we can get that No. 1 seed. That’s what we really want.

“It was just a little crazy the past 15 games with all the injuries. And now, this is the first time we can play with everyone healthy for the rest of the season. … It was really important to win [Saturday].”

Hakeem Olajuwon knows what a champion looks like, as he led the Rockets to their two titles. After the win over the Warriors, the Hall of Fame told The Undefeated while walking alongside that championship hallway mural, “This wasn’t an accident. This is for real.”

The Rockets agree with “The Dream” that their championship dream can come true this season.

“This is the only team that has the weapons to beat us,” Capela said of the Warriors. “If we do what we’re supposed to do against them, we’re better than them.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.